Society has changed its views on marijuana use over the past few decades and it is influencing how teenagers view using the drug.
In my counseling practice, I work with teenagers and it is not uncommon for me to hear statements like, “Marijuana is healthy because it is organic” or “Weed cures cancer.”
Since directly telling an adolescent what to do often results in having them do the opposite, I try to counsel teens to make informed decisions about their choices instead of relying on misinformation.
A young man once told me that the research shows “marijuana is not harmful to teens,” so I asked him to bring the research articles into my office for us to discuss. He then admitted, “well a friend told me about this research, I don’t have it.”
I then proceeded to give him several actual research articles that point to marijuana use for teens generally has more risks and problems associated with its’ use. This article will discuss some of the issues facing teens who decide who are considering or experimenting with marijuana for recreational purposes to help them make an informed choice about the risks.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse at www.drugabuse.gov (NIDA, December 2017), research shows the following:
- “When asked, only about 1 in 14 teens say they used marijuana in the past month.1 So, if you were thinking everyone uses marijuana, they don’t.
- Some think marijuana is okay to use because it’s “natural.” But not all natural plants are good for you – take tobacco, for example.
- Some teens believe marijuana can’t be that harmful if states are legalizing it. Legal or not, one real risk is addiction.
- In 2016, around 4 million people ages 12 and older had a marijuana use disorder. The most severe form also is known as an addiction.
- Research also shows that marijuana can harm the developing teen brain.”
Marijuana can be addictive. While it is true that not everyone who uses marijuana becomes dependent on it, a person can become psychologically addicted to it. Addiction is a state when a person loses their ability to control the use of a substance and continues to use it despite negative life consequences.
When I used to work in a chemical dependency treatment center, I noticed some qualitative differences between the marijuana addicts and the users of other drugs like cocaine. If I were to compare the different forms of drug use to getting a flat tire, cocaine is your tire blowing out while going 90 mph and the car rolling down a hill.
Marijuana is more like a small leak in the tire that is barely noticed, but over time it gets harder to drive and the tire tread runs down faster. In some way, psychological problems with marijuana are less dramatic and take more time to develop (psychotic breaks are an exception). This is where I believe getting dependent on marijuana for teens is detrimental.
Adolescence is understood to be a great period of upheaval and psychological turmoil for teenagers. It is a time of identity formation and defining themselves as an individual. Anxiety about fitting in with peers and clarifying values produces stress that eventually allows growth into adulthood. Some teens experience so much anxiety during this period when they discover marijuana they think they have found the answer to their problems.
Marijuana is so good at binding anxiety that it offers the promise of a stress-free teenage life. The problem is that adolescents need a certain amount of anxiety to grow. Without it, coping skills and identity formation are stunted. As life’s pressures continue to come, there is no personality structure to handle it so the teen must continue to smoke to escape. Eventually, psychological dependence occurs where the teen has to smoke just to function. It becomes a vicious cycle of escapism and avoiding feeling overwhelmed.
One of the ways I have seen marijuana dependency recovery be more difficult than cocaine is the long-term effect on anxiety. People that have smoked throughout adolescence and try to stop in adulthood are faced with the pressures of adulthood combined with no coping skills.
For heavy users, protracted anxiety can last for as long as a year while not using. I used to tell patients for “every year that you have used, that is how much you have delayed your maturity.”
The bottom line, teen years are important for psychological growth. Chronic Marijuana use undermines development through the escape from anxiety. We all need some stress to grow. In the absence of it, we atrophy.
According to NIDA (2017), “about 11 percent of people who use marijuana in a given year may have a drug problem. Those who begin using marijuana before age 18 are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a drug problem.”
Driving is negatively affected by marijuana use. In the teenage years, adolescents are navigating school and often learning how to drive a car. These are both areas where marijuana use undermines or hinders functioning. Due to their lack of experience, teens are more likely to react poorly in an emergency driving situation.
Further, they are more likely to speed or not leave enough room between themselves and the car in front of them. Marijuana negatively affects reaction time and can alter perception where it is harder to judge distances. It makes already risky teen driving even more so when under the influence.
Marijuana use negatively affects memory and attention in school. Because the active ingredient, THC, is fat soluble the negative effects of marijuana use can last for days after use. Poor concentration and problems remembering what has been learned are common side effects of heavy use.
“Amotivational syndrome” is another well-documented side effect of marijuana use where the person loses general motivation for goal accomplishment. This is probably associated with how well marijuana subdues anxiety. To grow, we need a certain amount of healthy concern to motivate us to achieve goals.
According to NIDA (2017), “compared with teens who don’t use, students who use marijuana are more likely not to finish high school or get a college degree. Marijuana also affects timing, movement, and coordination, which can harm athletic performance.”
Research shows that marijuana use for teens dramatically increases the potential for mental illness. Teens are being taught the opposite (mainly from other teens) that marijuana is the “organic, healthy” alternative to other drugs.
It is unclear whether marijuana use “unlocks” a teen’s potential for mental illness or directly causes it. Marijuana falls into the hallucinogenic category of drugs. When used, it alters the electrical activity of the brain, which causes the altering of perception experienced by users.
In my opinion, a factor that is probably associated with the creation of illness is the “escape from stress” focus of users. As discussed before, problems and the need to develop coping strategies don’t disappear when smoking marijuana, they just get put on hold. I call this the “buy now pay later plan” that we commonly associate with credit card debt.
Eventually, problems pile up like unpaid bills and the drug no longer provides an effective escape. Everyone breaks down at their weakest points when chronically stressed. The avoidance of stress for teenagers actually backfires through regular marijuana use.
Once stress hits it’s pinnacle a teen predisposed to mental illness unlocks it through the escapism pattern associated with their use. Once unlocked some mental illnesses never go away, which makes marijuana use exceptionally risky for vulnerable teenagers.
According to NIDA (2017):
“Marijuana use is linked with a higher risk for schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. It’s not clear if marijuana use actually causes these conditions, but research shows a connection. The amount of drug used, the age at first use, and a person’s genes influence this relationship.”
Actual research on the drug shows the following results (NIDA 2017):
“Short-term effects (while using or right after using):
- learning, attention, and memory problems
- distorted perception (sights, sounds, time, touch)
- poor coordination
- increased heart rate
- anxiety, paranoia
- psychosis (not common)
Effects that last longer than the short-term (a few days) but may not be permanent:
- learning and memory problems
- sleep problems
Long-term effects (effects of repeated use):
- risk of marijuana addiction
- long-term learning and memory problems if heavy use begins during youth
- the risk for a chronic cough, bronchitis
- risk of schizophrenia in some people with higher genetic risk
- in rare cases, the risk of recurrent episodes of severe nausea and vomiting”
Does marijuana use by teenagers lead to other drugs? Most studies I am aware of among teens is that they usually try alcohol, tobacco or marijuana before other drugs. For most, trying these substances do not lead to using harder drugs. However, there is a percentage of teens where marijuana serves as a “gateway drug” to using other substances. According to NIDA (2017) some theories why it can lead to harder drugs is:
- “Someone who is more likely to use other drugs may use marijuana first because it’s easier to get.
- Someone who is using marijuana is likely to be in contact with users and sellers of other drugs, increasing the chances of trying them.”
Teens who find themselves unable to stop their marijuana use, even when they want to, may have a marijuana use disorder. When the teen needs to smoke more to get the same effect, smoke more often to function, and continues to use despite negative life consequences “addiction” is the term used to describe this pattern.
Treatment for marijuana use disorder usually requires getting several elements of treatment at the same time. Because the recovering addict may have multiple needs at the same time, group treatment, psychological education about the addiction process, and individual therapy for coping skills are found in most treatment approaches.
According to NIDA (2017), “Addiction treatment can help a person stop using drugs, rebuild relationships with family and friends, and restore their productivity at work, at school, and in society.”
In summary, marijuana is not a harmless, organic substance for teenagers. Frequent use amongst teen undermines psychological development and cognitive functioning. Adolescence is a time of tremendous change and questioning. Having a full capacity of brain functioning and learning to sort out emotions toward maturing is crucial as teens strive toward adulthood.
Escaping from this stress through marijuana creates a pile-up of problems that they will have to revisit as they mature into adulthood. If you are concerned that your teen is experimenting with marijuana, early intervention can make a difference.
Schedule a counseling appointment so your teen can get proper education about their use as well as emotional support for life stress they may be trying to escape. Don’t wait until a small problem turns into a bigger one for your teen!
“Smoke with Me”, Courtesy of Smoke & Vibe, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Cannabis”, Courtesy of Esteban Lopez, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Hashpipe”, Courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Contemplation”, Courtesy of Khoman Room, Unsplash.com; CC0 License
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